Another 5 STAR REVIEW of Drown the movie

March 2015


Many gay audiences will probably remember Dean Francis’s short film, Boys Grammar, posted on Youtube in 2009 which has since had over a million views. This electrifying short film is based on a true story – a pupil from a Sydney boy’s boarding school was relentlessly bullied by his schoolmates because of his sexuality, a story that made the national press. InGrammar, the young character Gareth is stripped of his clothes by a number of other boys in the changing room at their school, subjected to a horrific rape with a blunt object, and then humiliated when his brother brings the main perpetrator for dinner at the victim’s house. It is a powerful film which Francis and co-writer Stephen Davis used both to dramatise this true-life case but to also start the conversation about homophobic bullying in Australia and also have a space to deal with the bullying that they too suffered when they were at school.

The kernel of Drown can be found very much in this short film, dealing as it does with a similarly belligerent protagonist and a weaker, gay man who is subjected to bullying and a horrific humiliation ritual over the course of a drunken evening. Director Francis and his writing counterpart, Davis, shift the setting from the brutally macho environment of a boy’s school to an equally macho lifesaving community that is both highly competitive and where its members expose any tiny weakness. In a sense,Drown is a character study centring on Len, convincing played by Mat Levett who appeared as Gareth in Boy’s Grammar but who also bears more than a little resemblance to Max Riemelt in the similarly themed gay film, Free Fall (2013). Len lives in a small world of surfing, swimming, working on a rubbish tip, and winning an annual lifesaving tournament that makes him the king of his tiny universe.

However, all balance is lost when Phil (played by newcomer Jack Matthews) joins the club. Len quickly realises Phil is gay and later on, Phil manages to beat Len in the clubs’ tournament for the first time in five years. Both this knock to his manhood and the resurfacing of memories of his school days mutual masturbating with a boy at school (one he brutally beats) bring Len to a crisis. He starts a vicious bullying campaign against Phil with his best friend Meat (Harry Cook) while all the time trying to keep his latent homosexual desire for Phil at bay. Phil is not exactly a straightforward character either – despite having a boyfriend, he hides his sexuality from his counterparts at the club and in one telling scene, wipes away his boyfriend’s kiss when he’s dropped off at the beach. Despite Len’s brutalising behaviour, it also seems clear that Phil is attracted to Len and this perhaps explains his calamitous behaviour later in the film.

The trope of repressed homosexual is well worn in gay cinema, used in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) , Cruising (1980), American Beauty  (1999)

,Bully (2001),  Shank (2009),

As well as the previously mentioned Free Fall (2013). But it works particularly well in Drownbecause of the Aussie ‘hyper-macho culture’ in which it’s set, a masculinity the filmmakers are in a sense trying to subvert. There is also a question here about whether gay writers and filmmakers use film to fantasise about the idea of straight males repressing homosexual desire, to the point where the events can tip over from feasible to fantastic, but fortunately this film doesn’t tip too far over this edge. It is also helped by powerful performances from its principal actors and the nonlinear structure of the film where the long night of humiliation is cut up with earlier scenes informing the audience of how we got here. Despite an intense and ominous atmosphere throughout, the film does not deliver the ending audiences have been expecting from the start and this is a nice surprise.

Drown is one of the centrepieces of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and it’s great that they are showcasing home grown talent. This is a powerful film for gay audiences, whose events echo the Matt Shepard murder and are a painful reminder that bullying and victimisation are still prevalent in 2015.


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